Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review - "Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864" by Donald Frazier

[Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864 by Donald S. Frazier (State House Press, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustration, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,451/513. ISBN:978-1-933337-83-8. $39.95]

Throughout its run, the "Louisiana Quadrille" series from Donald Frazier has clearly and effectively stressed the deeply intertwined nature of the Louisiana and Texas fronts during the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Confederate forces defending those states were always heavily outnumbered by their Union army and navy foes, sometimes almost overwhelmingly so, but the Confederates were nevertheless able to exploit both geography and interior lines to contain Union advances and quite often achieve stunning victories. In addition to being a major element of General Richard Taylor's small army, the hard-riding Texans of General Tom Green's cavalry and equally hard-marching Texans of General John G. Walker's infantry division ("Walker's Greyhounds") would play major parts in western Louisiana's defense. On the other side, the general lack of Union success largely stemmed from an inconsistency of effort as part of an overall lack of prioritization of the theater. Volume One Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863 (2009) touched upon operations in both states, but the following two books (2011's Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February - May 1863 and 2015's Blood on the Bayou: Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and the Trans-Mississippi) focused strongly on Civil War events in Louisiana. Blood on the Bayou ended with the Union capture of Port Hudson in July 1863 and the redeployment of General Nathaniel Banks's bloodied but victorious Army of the Gulf to the Lafourche District of SW Louisiana. The Confederate mass surrenders at Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson combined with the costly failed assault on Union-fortified Helena (all occurring over a six-month period) left many Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi Department demoralized and in disarray. How Union forces might best exploit those gains made during the latter half of 1863 (and perhaps even inflict killing blows to the newly isolated Confederate state governments of the Trans-Mississippi) while also thwarting French designs in Mexico is the major theme and starting point of Frazier's fourth volume in the series, Tempest over Texas: The Fall and Winter Campaigns of 1863–1864.

Given how strongly geopolitical concerns guided the planning and conduct of military operations in the Trans-Mississippi during the period covered in the book and beyond, it is appropriate that Frazier begins his study in 1863 Mexico, where a Civil War raged between the government of Benito Juarez and a French Army-backed monarchist faction that would eventually install Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor. While the U.S. government could do little about France's flagrant disregard of the Monroe Doctrine at the time, "planting the flag" somewhere in Texas would at least offer symbolic support for Juarez and a sharp warning against further French designs. A Union lodgment on the Rio Grande would also disrupt the cross-border cotton trade that did so much to sustain the Confederate war effort in the Trans-Mississippi. The question for the Union high command was how best to achieve those limited goals while also addressing other strategic concerns on both sides of the Mississippi.

Generals Grant and Banks favored an immediate advance upon Mobile, but President Lincoln and General in Chief Halleck wanted to the use the momentum gained from Vicksburg and Port Hudson to clear out the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from the Arkansas Valley to the Gulf. Who would win this debate was obvious. As Frazier describes them, initial plans for sweeping the Trans-Mississippi were big, with General Frederick Steele advancing from Helena to capture Little Rock and hold the Arkansas River Valley, General John Stevenson striking west from Vicksburg along the railroad to Monroe, General Marcellus Crocker capturing Trinity from his Natchez base, General Francis Herron securing the banks of the Mississippi north of New Orleans against Confederate blockade efforts, and General William Franklin invading Texas directly by sea via Sabine Pass. Fort Beauregard was abandoned at Crocker's approach, and the book covers in some detail the against-all-odds Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. Steele's highly successful Arkansas campaign is not covered as it is beyond the geographical scope of the series, but Frazier cites the surprising Union defeat at Chickamauga in September as the key factor in the Union high command's scaling back of their most ambitious plans for the Trans-Mississippi. Though large formations were called away, Banks was allowed to keep the Thirteenth Corps to replace the loss of the department's many 90-Day regiments. This redirection of Union resources away from the Trans-Mississippi is a little appreciated consequence of the Chickamauga Campaign that Frazier explores at some length in the book.

The Confederates were also active, with Frazier documenting their efforts to suppress the many pro-Union/anti-Confederate jayhawker bands of SW Louisiana that prowled the swamps and forests between Opelousas and the Sabine River. This section is a fresh contribution to the study of the guerrilla conflict in Louisiana, a fine accompaniment to other published work documenting the irregular war in other regions of the state (ex. Christopher Pena's detailed examination in Scarred by War of guerrilla actions in the Lafourche region over the final two years of the war).

The next major Union operation in the theater would come to be known as the Texas Overland Expedition of 1863. Though a pair of good books have already been written about this topic, David C. Edmonds's full-length Yankee Autumn in Acadiana (1979) and Richard Lowe's slim overview The Texas Overland Expedition of 1863 (1998), Frazier is the first author to comprehensively address the close relationship between the autumn campaign's Texas and Louisiana fronts (neither of which can be properly understood in the absence of the other) .

Beginning in mid-September 1863, General Franklin reassembled the Nineteenth and Thirteenth army corps for a renewed advance up Bayou Teche. Covering his right flank would be General N.J.T. Dana's division based at Morganza on the Mississippi River. The Confederates did not have the manpower to directly oppose Franklin, but they had the means to strike hard at targets of opportunity and Frazier details the September 29 Battle of Sterling's Plantation (or Bayou Fordoche) that mauled Dana's command. Mid-October found Franklin near Opelousas after a series of skirmishes with the Confederate cavalry forces of generals Tom Green and James Major. In early November, Dana's Division (after recuperating in New Orleans from its fight at Sterling's Plantation) sailed from Louisiana for the mouth of the Rio Grande. There, Dana set up his base on Brazos Santiago and later captured Brownsville on November 5.

Around the same time, General Franklin, without clear directions from Banks and seeing no purpose in advancing further, fell back toward Vermilionville. The Confederates saw another opportunity to strike back, and Tom Green inflicted a sharp defeat on the isolated Union rear guard at Bayou Bourbeau on November 3. Meanwhile, Banks, who was content with the diversionary effect of Franklin's presence in SW Louisiana, arrived in Texas to command in person, with the Thirteenth Corps reinforced and now commanded by General C.C. Washburn. After Franklin, still without explicit instructions from Banks, reached New Iberia and dug in there, the pursuing Confederates passed to the north and planted batteries on the west bank of the Mississippi River between Port Hudson and the Mississippi/Louisiana border. They would remain there from late November through early December, wreaking havoc on vulnerable shipping before withdrawing inland.

With Dana holding firm on the Rio Grande, Washburn moved up the Texas coastline, seizing the Mustang and Matagorda barrier islands and forcing the abandonment of Corpus Christi and Fort Esperanza. Houston and Galveston were then threatened by further advance up the long, narrow Matagorda Peninsula. At that point, Washburn paused for three critical weeks seeking reinforcements. Those weeks also gave the Confederates vital breathing room to reinforce there own forces and improve already strong fortifications blocking Washburn's path. Instead of providing Banks and Washburn with more resources, Halleck instead withdrew his support for the entire Texas operation in favor of a new overland advance up the Red River in Louisiana. Disappointed, Union forces withdrew from Texas shores, leaving only a token force to oversee the Rio Grande. Sensing the writing on the wall, Banks reluctantly added his own support to the new operation, which will be addressed in the final volume of the series.

Frazier's overall portrayal of Banks in the book is more sympathetic than most. Somewhat reminiscent of Grant's juggling of forces between the Richmond and Petersburg fronts in 1864-65, Banks sought local advantage through distracting the enemy on one end of a long line (in Banks's case, one that stretched hundreds of miles between the Mississippi and Rio Grande rivers) while striking on the other. How well he did this is open to debate (the book is arguably not critical enough of how much Banks kept Franklin, his principal subordinate, confused and in the dark regarding the overall goals of the fall 1863 campaigning season), but Frazier presents the Massachusetts politician-general as performing reasonably well while at the mercy of a fickle War Department that seemed to give and withdraw support on a whim.

As was the case in the other series volumes, Frazier's impressive research encompasses manuscript archives, government documents, newspapers, and published sources of all kinds. The result is a campaign narrative rich in both high command and ground-level perspectives. Though some of the maps might have included more unit placement information for increased clarity, the book's cartography coverage is quite thorough overall. With so many operations in Texas and Louisiana during this period conducted at or near the same time, it can take some extra effort on the part of the reader to keep the relative timing of them all straight, but the author probably organizes his treatment as well as can be done within the narrative format.

Numerous existing works collectively address the war in the Trans-Mississippi between the July 1863 fall of Port Hudson and the launching of the 1864 Red River Campaign, but Tempest Over Texas is a complete original in presenting and interpreting all of these interconnected military and political events as a cohesive whole. Though some historians continue to regard the Trans-Mississippi as an insignificant sideshow, the bulls-eye was squarely placed on the Gulf states of the Trans-Mississippi West at various times during the war and all of Frazier's books are essential reading for those seeking to understand when and why that was the case. We now look toward the fifth and final volume in the series with equal parts anticipation and regret that it will soon be all over.


  1. Thanks for the review, Drew. I have been looking forward to this volume and the next. It's not surprising Frazier did not include the Little Rock Campaign. While a thorough coverage of The Red River Campaign will be appreciated, I hope but don't expect the same twin coverage of the Camden Expedition which was so closely intertwined.

    Chris Van Blargan

    1. With the fifth book having to address the final year and a half of the war, I don't know if we'll get the kind of detail we would expect from a standalone study. I don't know what depth Frazier has planned for it, but he did say that he feels Red River has been covered well already.

  2. Drew, off topic (sorry!): Ken Noe's The Howling Storm (LSU Press) is scheduled for publication next month. And a full-length biography on John A. Rawlins by one Allen J. Ottens (IU Press) has been advertised for 2021.


    1. Yes, I am on the list for the Noe book and did see notice of the Rawlins biography. With some university presses scaling back on their Civil War releases over the past few years, it's nice to see Indiana getting back into the game.

    2. Noe's book is already available from LSU - I received it (and the Hess book on supply) earlier this week.

  3. I was quite disappointed with the cartography. Compared to the other books in the series this book is quite stingy and sparse. I hope The Red River Campaign volume gets a better treatment.

    1. Because Vol. 4 (in comparison to the previous volumes) covers much more marching around than major fighting, I expected that there would be fewer maps. That said, like I mentioned in the review, I think the amount of unit information on many of the maps isn't up to the standards set earlier.

    2. The maps in Edmonds' Yankee Autumn in Acadiana are okay, I was just hoping that Vol. 4 would be an improvement.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.